Profanity in Your Writing

Here’s an issue that I’m trying to better understand. Profanity in commercial fiction, or rather, trying to NOT swear in your novels. It’s considered best that you don’t let your characters swear in your stories.

I follow The Kill Zone Blog daily and have read many works by James Scott Bell to improve my writing skills. A few months back I bought his work, How to Write Dazzling Dialogue, on Audible. I was in Safeway, listening along and absorbing as much as I could while buying bread.

Mr. Bell made a link between profanity and how marketable your book will be. He said using profanity could mean turning away readers. It could also mean that you get fewer repeat readers for your future work. This is a common statement also on the TKZ blog and other posting around the web.

I’d describe this revelation in the bakery section as a heartbreaking moment. I’m a guy writing stories that are set in oil and gas. Let’s just say that f’bombs get hurled between people for fun at oil sites—it was always going to be a necessity. But as I investigated the issue, it looked like Bell was right and I was crushed.

At first, I believed this issue sealed up my failure. I remember my head spinning. Although devastated, there was a major challenge ahead of me to overcome. Either I needed a solution or I had to give up on my ideas.

Being a good little problem solver, I had to define my challenges.

Problem Number One. I want to be taken seriously as an author and I want people to read my work. Also, I had a WIP in progress that had over two hundred uses of colorful language. Do I go clean?

Problem Number Two. How was I going to be realistic? Not using profanity appeared wrong, and not in the direction I wanted. I want my readers to have a genuine sense of what it’s like to be in my character’s world.

I also considered similar issues. There was one area I looked into which was violence. But what about violence? Why aren’t authors turning down the violent acts in their books? I didn’t really know what the answer was but there had to be a relationship. (BTW. Not going to bring up sex which I’m sure there’s a link as well).

As time moved on and I had a revelation that if people were comfortable with their supporting characters dying off in horrific ways, surely the reader should be okay with a potty word.

If profanity should be turned down then shouldn’t we tone down profanity and violence? I did dive deep into my reading and research to figure this out. What I was seeing made little sense.

I was reading books written by James Scott Bell and John Gilstrap after my mirror moment. Both authors are contributors on TKZ. In Bell’s Mike Romeo series there’s a lot of gunplay and fighting—but little profanity. John Gilstrap writes the Johnathan Grave series, a mercenary who kills dozens at a time but doesn’t really swear.

Before I go on—I want to be clear—I’m not calling out these guys. What I realized is that their books work well for them without profanity. Mike Romeo is a genius and Johnathan Grave is a hero. Both these lead character have a higher moral code they adhere to. Swearing might not be in their nature. My takeaway was that profanity can be used sparingly when done properly with the right characters.

After that I thought maybe I was going down the wrong road and I hit a dead end.

So, for problem number one above, I answered some of my issues. Yes, you can write a thriller novel and not swear on the pages. You can be successful and realistic about your character dialogue and at the same time, not offend people.

But wholly SH&T. The body counts are high in the world of fiction. The tolerance with the reader is also high when there’s a shooting or death in many best-selling books. Why isn’t there a higher correlation for tolerance with language?

There is a movement related to streaming services. There’s a lot of graphic writing out there that ends up in popular work such as Netflix and Amazon. That has led to my “AH-HA” moment a few weeks ago. There are television series that on Netflix that offer a more realistic story with realistic language than you can find on network TV. Maybe not quite an AH-HA moment, but there’s lots of writing and books that are used to make that material. Overall, maybe there’s some room for me after all?

I believe we are seeing is a shift in the media world. Grownups want to be treated like grownups. This is an observation on my part but it’s been my observation that stems back to my high school days. Two of my favorite authors back then were Stephen King and John Saul. It’s not because they wrote horror, but their characters were realistic. Another guy who brought a world to life was Jeff Lindsay when he wrote the Dexter series.

Let’s use Jeff Lindsay for example and Dexter as an odd leading character. Dexter is holding back and his dialogue matches up to the clean-cut image he’s trying to project. If he wasn’t a serial killer we’d like to be friend’s with him. But all the others around him, like his sister are all messed up and it comes out in the interactions. There’s an abundance of profanity but it worked.

Dexter is also a standout from your typical Thriller or Suspense story. I can’t ignore that there’s perhaps a different kind of reader who’s rooting for anti-hero. But I for one loved it.

Lesson learned—characters need to match their dialogue. Back to Jeff Lindsay, he used Dexter’s sister as the brash opposite with a mouth to match, and used her well.

My gut searching stopped when I realized the following:

  1. I need to write dialogue that is real for my characters and their scene.
  2. I’m going to treat my readers like grownups and let them decide.

I’m not naming authors or specific books, but I have stopped reading stories when I find the characters lack important engagement. When I see dialogue like, “Oh FUDGE,” “You FRIGGIN momma boy,” “I don’t give a CRAP what you do,” it’s even more disgusting to me than the actual profanity. If the author refuses to fully engage, you lost me and my cash. I tap out.

In relation to problem two above—I’m going to have to risk it. All along, I needed to have faith in my future readers. I have faith they will get through some awkward points. I’m going to take them on a life like journey and I hope everyone will be with me in the end.

There is a lesson, and I believe that James Scott Bell is valid in saying that excessive profanity is terrible for your writing career. I’m going to use the best judgement I can. Therefore, no, I will not swear in the books just because, but I’m not holding back when the tension demands the reaction.

What do you think?

5 thoughts on “Profanity in Your Writing

  1. I believe you should write in a way that’s true to you. I seldom use profanity, but I don’t mind them at all, and like you said, it’s worse if the authors use G-rated words in place of cusses. Anyway, thanks for this post!

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  2. I think JSB’s dialogue book is his best writer’s book. It was very helpful to me.

    I also think you’re right in that cussing fits some characters and doesn’t fit others. I put down a book not too long ago because the F bombs started on page 1 and didn’t let up. If the author had used “bowl” or “hat” or “dimple” that often, I would have put down the book. Each page sounded like the next.

    Then I was reading a Dan Simmons book, think it was the Winter haunting one, and REALLY looked at the prose. I was astounded at the number of F bombs that appeared on a particular page. But I hadn’t noticed them when I was reading because the cussing fit right into the character’s personality and his normal dialogue when he was really ticked off. Not every page, not every character.

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